To Hell With You!

I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, “To hell with you!”  Saul Bellow

That quote is from a book titled For Writers Only by Sophy Burnham (Penguin). It’s one of those books I turn to when the muse has locked itself in the bathroom and refuses to come out.

According to Ms. Burnham, back in the eighties, a best-selling author decided to demonstrate how hard it is for a new writer to break into the business. He sent his already-published manuscript to several publishing houses, including his own, and it was rejected every time. I find this both fascinating and appalling. What I get from this is that getting a manuscript published is largely the luck of the draw. Why would a publisher love a manuscript enough one day to publish it, and then hate it enough to reject it? Did a different person grab it from the slush pile? Did the same person read it after having a bad weekend?

Trying to get published or land an agent is sort of like storming a castle in your underwear. The guys in the castle have all the power, and you’re running around in your tightie-whities waving a manuscript and projecting an intimidation factor of zero.

We’ve all heard that an aspiring writer has to have the hide of a rhino to survive the criticism and rejection. True enough. But it seems to me we need more than that, and maybe something that’s better for us as artists.

Look, there are people in this business who make us feel like we don’t know what a good story is. Maybe they want us to feel that way. It takes the power out of our hands and places it in theirs.  I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve read with agents and publishers who seem hell bent on talking people out of submitting picture book manuscripts. Mind you, they represent and publish picture books. They go on and on about how hard it is to write a good picture book, as if they, and not the author, had done all the toiling and agonizing over just the right words. Don’t tell me how hard it is, sweetheart. I’m the one in the trenches here. I am the writer. You are not.

A tough hide allows us to stay on our feet while people to take shots at us, which is great. But it’s a defensive posture. At some point, we need to go on the offensive. We need to take the seemingly illogical stance that what we’ve created is great, even in the face of being rejected or ignored. We have to believe in ourselves and our work.

I don’t mean to say we should be unwilling to take an fresh look at a manuscript after it’s been rejected to see if it can be improved. We have to be honest with ourselves and true enough to our craft to make that effort. But there are times when you just know that what you’ve written is terrific and worthy of print, and that the intern going through the slush pile just doesn’t get it. That knowing is the weapon we have to use to storm castle after castle.

Do YOU believe in what you’ve written? Then keep storming those castles and wave that manuscript with all the confidence you know it deserves. The non-writers up on the parapet will try to discourage you out of it. Don’t let them.


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